Libya is Bigger Issue for EU than for U.S.     Print Email

The revolt in Libya differs radically from the recent regime changes in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, especially in its violence but also in its transatlantic ramifications and challenges. Fundamentally, Washington has always treated the Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi as a terrorist – potentially useful, but basically what Ronald Reagan called “a mad dog.” In the last decade, Washington has succeeded in its anti-terrorist agenda with Libya (at the price of ignoring human rights for Libyans themselves). As a result, the U.S. is free of entangling ties with Tripoli.

In contrast, some European countries, notably Italy and France, have sought to work with Libya on economics and other matters of mutual interest, notably its role as the major North African gateway for sub-Saharan African migrants headed toward the EU. This threat of uncontrolled migration from Africa via Libya continues to head the list of current, neuralgic issues with Libya that mean that Europe, especially Italy and France, are confronted with a direct challenge by the Libyan revolution.

The common denominator between the U.S. and the EU on Libya seems to be that both sides of the Atlantic have been ready to overlook the systematic repression and human-rights violations by Tripoli against the Libyans as the price of cooperation.  For Italy and France, the aim has been getting Gaddafi to sign commercial deals and choke immigrant flows to Europe – and for this, Europe has been willing to sell the arms that Gaddafi is using on his people now. For Washington and London, the key business was getting him to cooperate to shut down Libyan-backed terrorism and disclose his own clandestine nuclear-weapons program as part of the struggle against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. That done, the U.S. now has few ties with Libya.

The terrorism issue may now disappear entirely with a radical political change in Tripoli. But the economic and migration issues are liable to heat up (especially in the climate of sanctions that are bound to be imposed as long as Gaddafi survives) and in a probably-protracted scramble for power if and when he goes -- perhaps one reminiscent of commercial and political struggles in Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

The outcome seems bound to be a bloodbath as Gaddafi wages a “scorched earth” policy to defeat the uprising. The aftermath of his survival, if a bloodbath enables him to cling to power temporarily, will be a pariah status worse than that inflicted on the regime in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.  So far, the only Western response has been verbal, with isolated calls for the imposition of a no-fly zone to ground Libyan warplanes ordered to attack civilians. The episode seems bound to go down as a failure of some recent calls in the international community for military interventions to enforce the world’s “duty to protect” civilians populations from destructive abuse by a ruling regime.   But the aftermath, whatever it is, may cause some friction in transatlantic cooperation – whether in trying to isolate and punish a surviving Gaddafi regime or, more likely, in a scramble to stand up a new state in Libya.

The country’s recent past offers few clues pointing to a better regime, if and when Gaddafi is ousted. In contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, Libya has oil, not a modern middle class; tribal clans, not a state political system; mercenaries, not a national army. So, any transition is bound to be chaotic as well as bloody.  In that sense, Libya is bound to pose more problems for the West as a whole than anything foreseeable in the political earthquake shaking every regime across the whole Arab world from North Africa to the Levant, and even in the Gulf States around Saudi Arabia.

The impact will be particularly direct on Europe. Oil is a major factor: 80 percent of the output from Libya (a major Arab and African producer) goes to Europe. Even though oil is “fungible” on the world market, the apparently inevitable rupture of supplies from Libyan oil fields and refineries can cost temporary shortages for consumers in Europe, starting in Italy. (The Italian stake in its former colony is so high, that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi responded to the international outrage about Libya over the weekend by saying that he thought his Libyan counterpart was too busy to be bothered by a phone call of protest from Rome.)

The overall EU reaction, beyond the outcry against state repression, has focused on the potential problem of migrants, perhaps tens of thousands of them, trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe at its closest point – to Italy. Italy already has this problem in the form of 3,000 refugees from Tunisia who have landed on the island of Lampedusa. On a different order of magnitude for the EU as a whole, Libya has been a keystone in a campaign to get North African states to prevent migrants from leaving their shores to inundate Europe. The main lever in this has been money paid to Gaffadi in exchange for blocking the flow of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, that used to flow through Libya as a jumping-off point to Italy. The old Libyan gateway reflects Gaddafi’s longstanding flirtation with Africa, which continued long after other North African countries had abandoned such visions of Third World solidarity, to concentrate on their own national interests.

(As a side effect, the tensions and flashpoints in Libya now involve both migrants and mercenaries. Gaddafi threatened last week to “unleash a wave of black Africans if the EU continued to call publicly for restraint by Tripoli against the insurrection. And the African mercenaries reportedly have been in action, killing civilian demonstrators. As Gaddafi authority declines, there is a risk of Libyan mob reprisals against both suspected African mercenaries and African migrants in Libya.)

The overall situation with Libya reflects a larger EU failure – the French-led push for a “European-Mediterranean Community” that would have worked on the EU’s southern flanks in ways similar to the EU’s outreach to the ex-Soviet empire to the east. Germany and other core EU countries were never enthusiastic about this project, dooming it to scant results. Undaunted, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy continued his campaign as a bilateral courtship of Gaddafi, that included a farcical state visit by the Libyan leader to Paris last year, that seemed to backfire on Paris as a public relations exercise. (A French diplomatic cable released this week by Wikileaks has a French official complaining that French efforts are unavailing because all the Libyan contracts seem “to go to Italy.”)

The explosion in Libya therefore has much more tangible, immediate consequences for Europe than for the U.S., mainly because successive U.S. administrations have obtained what they wanted most from Libya. When President Ronald Reagan launched an air-raid aimed at killing “mad dog” Gaddafi in 1984 (a raid in which France refused over-flight rights to U.S. fighter-bombers), he succeeded only in killing the Libyan ruler’s daughter. But the effect seemed to tame Libyan terrorism. Gaddafi’s fears of being attacked in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq contributed, with British coaxing, to closure over the Libyan-backed mid-air bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 and, more importantly for the future, Libyan surrender of its covert program to build nuclear weapons with the help of the renegade Pakistani scientist, A.Q. Khan.

In contrast, Europe’s problems seem only to be beginning. Getting rid of Gaddafi is the first question. And then, there will be the tricky and perhaps lengthy trial-and-error process of influencing the shape of a successor government for Libya.

All of this will be even harder because Libyan society seems to be still rooted in tribalism which Gaddafi carefully preserved and nurtured as part of his technique of divide-and-rule in Libya). As a result, Libya has no well-trained military as a pillar of the state as in Egypt or Turkey. And Libya has little of the wired generations of youth that have some vision of a modern Arab state elsewhere in the region.

The result?  The meltdown of Libya  seems bound to be a more immediate problem for Europe than for the U.S. But the Obama administration will also have to cope with the global economic fall-out of the temporary collapse of a small, marginal but still significant oil-producing despot.